Try it, you might like it… or not.
Justina Robson has put up an appeal in The Independent (UK) for more women to give sf a chance. Now, that’s an idea I don’t have any problem with. Me, I want all nice girls and boys, and nasty girls and boys, and all furry green aliens from Alpha Centauri, to give it a chance. What I disagree with her about is that women can’t deal with science and math in it, and somehow ‘the patriarchy’ is making it seem unattractive. Maybe there are physics or math or engineering students or lecturers who really don’t want pesky girls in their treehouse. Most of them that I’ve met, if you showed genuine understanding and interest in their subject, couldn’t care less if you were green and had three heads. They love their subject and if you’re one of them, other characteristics are secondary, and mostly irrelevant, except you might be the girl of their dreams because you are female and intelligent and able to share their passion – making you rare and wonderful. I’ve certainly found the same about hardcore sf readers and indeed a fair number of writers. But let’s have a considered look at what she says. Italics direct quotes. Bold my view.
In the late 1970s Theodore Sturgeon, a prolific writer and critic in the field of science fiction and fantasy (SFF), remarked: “All the good new SF writers are women, except for James Tiptree Jnr.”
Now whether you agreed with Sturgeon or not (not, in my case. I think in the ‘70’s Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle were also worth finding for a start) what you had then was a reasonable case for invoking the Bumiputera syndrome – if it is harder for any group to enter a specific profession, that group will, on average, be better at it than those who find entry easier. Make it harder for men to enter Romance – there will still be exceptional female Romance writers, but the standard among male Romance writers will be higher than the female standard. The same applies to any field, any group.
This situation no longer applies to women in sf/fantasy. The last count I did had far more women than men as new authors in traditional publishing. Do I have to explain what that means in terms of the same syndrome? Counter-intuitively, short term ‘advantage’ works against the overall perception of group quality in the long term. If you actually want men (or women, or you-name-it) to appear superior writers in general, make it harder for them.
However outside the genre community where the “casual” bulk of the book-buyers exist, the figures tell a story of female author sales of 30 per cent
So… where are these figures from? How are they separated from ‘fandom’? Is this a Mike Glyer type fan, or WisCon fan or just a person who reads and loves sf? Without seeing the figures, I assume that just means general sales, and that ‘fandom’ is assumed to be a very tiny proportion. Of course that too is a moving target. Some of us only sell to fandom and make a living at it. But basically this says that, actually, given her assumed equality of purchase with in ‘fandom’ that in the wider world, that’s actually lower. 25% say. Keep that figure in mind.
Since 1954 women have reached on average less than 20 per cent representation in genre awards, sometimes as low as 12 per cent, and this includes the fantasy genre in which the genders are roughly equal in their publication output.
And since 1954 the mobile/cell phone ownership has reached on average less than 20% too. Of course that’s not the average THIS year or recently. Sometimes – most of that time – it was as low as zero %. It’s hard to tell what she means here, and of course, we can’t look at her data sources to make sense of it, because she doesn’t cite them. But awards lag participation so we shall see. And women are more demographically represented than other groups.
Besides anything else, there is a near complete disconnect between sales and representation in genre awards (ergo The SAD PUPPY III program, to change that.)
and this includes the fantasy genre in which the genders are roughly equal in their publication output.
Roughly equal only if you do not separate new authors, where women exceed men. It is old male authors that make it LOOK roughly equal. Can you extrapolate that into the future?
Last November, a Goodreads poll indicated that female readers (who buy two thirds of all the books sold in Britain) rate books by women slightly higher than those by men
2/3! Now first there’s a figure really SHOULD upset all authors, and worry all readers, particularly those who want their girl-child (or are that woman) to have a happy successful relationship, good for raising kids and building a prosperous, happy society, good to live in.
Firstly, that’s a huge lose (to be equal, and make up that 33% difference men would have to buy twice the books than they do now*) for authors purely at the mercenary level – even if income was split 50/50 between the sexes (it isn’t. Men earn more, not because of sexism, but because they don’t have babies, or in general stay home and raise them, and on average work longer, years and hours, and more of them at jobs that are vile, dirty, dangerous, but need doing, and are thus well-paid. I’m a big advocate of equal work / equal pay… but that means you hump the same 16 tons of number nine coal in the same time for the same dollars.) Given that men do in fact have more money, we’re looking at, conservatively, authors having 40% less money than they could have. Yes, I think I could get upset about that.
Secondly, in the long term implication is very clear. If there are less men buying, there are probably less men reading. And yes, couples that share interests (like reading) are more stable. And kids who come from stable families just do produce better outcomes. Very Un-PC, but very logical. Kids who read do better in school, and life too. And about 50% of those kids will be male. It’s not just in male interests to see men buying books in the same volume (or in authors’ interests). It’s in everyone’s long term interest. However, it seems Robson isn’t worried about this. That, it appears, is just hunky-dory (which is a really masculine kind of ship, in case you wanted to know).
Note that female readers (on Goodreads which is a poor sampling method for the general reading public) rate books by women slightly higher than those by men. Not ‘much better’ or ‘don’t read’. SLIGHTLY. Remember this.
And yet, 2013 data from VIDA, which tracks women’s presence in the literary arts across the board, reflects the same old 30 per cent for visibility. So sci-fi sales for women are 10 per cent below the total literary average and that average is 20 per cent below parity.
I struggled to make sense out of this. What is visibility, and how do you measure it? Do you break it up into new authors and old? Are we back to awards? Surely occupying about 50% of shelf space is what you get out of about 50% authors? How is 30% of sales 10% below the literary average (I assume this VIDA visibility) of 30%? So: 30% is 10% below 30%… Whut? Parity with what? 50:50 sex ratio, or 2/3 purchases by people who slightly prefer women authors?
But doesn’t this indicate that in sci-fi overall the sales and exposure merely reflect the population levels of sci-fi readership in the wider world? Men and women tend to stick to their own when picking authors – 90 per cent of the top 50 books read by men were by male authors, and vice versa for women, according to Goodreads.
Er. Hello. ‘men and women tend to stick to their own when picking authors’ Whut? What happened to ‘SLIGHTLY’ earlier? And how in #$%% hell do you manage to square 2/3 of book purchases with 30% of women authors bought unless… you’re assuming that in sf actually purchases are 70% by men? Which you’d think would make any forward-looking person cheer, there is an area where men are buying. I think she is misunderstanding the ‘90% of the top 50’. I’m not sure of the methodology used, and don’t care enough to look it up, if it is available, but ‘top 50 read’ is NOT – no matter what parameters you use – the same as ‘purchases’. I might buy 800 books by women and 200 by men, and still end up with a personal 45/50 favorites by men. And I’ll bet that actually what is being described here is the top 50 books which got voted for by men or women. A lot of women might vote Robson as one of their top 50. A lot of men might vote Weber as one of their top 50. Does this mean men don’t read Robson? No. It just means they don’t like her as much as Weber, and vice versa. A ‘slight’ preference can be consistent with that. It isn’t with 90% purchasing preference, which is what she seems to be implying. I am definitely a man. I looked. I certainly don’t have 90% male author collection. I can’t think of ever finding this disparity and I’ve never visited a human without looking at their books!
The next paragraph simply leaves me confused. I can only cope with tertiary plus 8 years, so it is probably too clever for me. I think she has a problem with someone’s pre-conceptions. Instead of this being their problem (and hers) for the innate sexual discrimination against teen males, who really are human, despite appearances, I think it’s all the fault ‘the patriarchy’. Again. They’re busy lil’ fellers.
“I was told by someone who has been in publishing a lot of years that the content of my books really didn’t matter. They put a woman [author] on the cover and that would determine sales. A man on the cover, any man, and sales would be higher.” If this is a belief at the publishing gateway level it’s hardly surprising that sales follow.
So we have hearsay about the gatekeepers (aka traditional publishing) which directly contradicts the actual evidence of equal numbers that she quotes earlier, but I suppose it’s a case equal rights. “A woman hears what she wants to hear, and disregards the rest.” (With apologies to S&G) – unless the publishers are buying books by women for ideological reasons and not because they have the customers and the faith in them. Yes, that always works well.
Ok I’ll pass on the patriarchy. We know it’s all men’s fault they’re not buying a lot more books. The customer is wrong, of course. And he’s probably not taking out the trash or dealing with the dead rat. I’m kinda with the radio guy. I’m just not that into books which are all sexual politics, feelings and angst from the female POV, and sex resulting from the same. It’s like asking me to be interested in a book which is only about model railways. I don’t do model railways (I know some people adore them), and there is a limit to how much I can read about it no matter how well you write it. You mix it lightly into a great story, and it’s different. But whatever you like, you’re welcome to write it or read it. Just don’t be offended if I color myself disinterested in reading it. However I’m up for this challenge.
‘ like finding an elephant with a laser rifle surfing on a shark inside your bedroom and then writing about what you had for breakfast.’
“I am never going to have LSD for breakfast again,” thought Freda, crawling away from the shark surfing elephant with a laser rifle in her bedroom.
I don’t mind if people who don’t like novels like mine don’t read it. Though such comments as, “This isn’t sci-fi because sci-fi is about manly things, like science and maths, and you’re ruining it with all your chintz and feelings” are so depressing, and I do mind very much about this seizing of an entire category.
I prefer it if people who don’t like novels like mine don’t read them, actually. Why would I want them to read something they don’t like? No, I have no mission to ‘raise consciousness’ or educate them. So long as you don’t endlessly carp about my not having chintz and feelings, or not getting them right, I’m cool with you, or anyone, doing whatever you please. However the label ‘sf’ just makes it easier for me to find what I do like. So I appreciate people getting confused and upset when they buy what they think will be laser rifles and space ships and science, and they get chintz and feelings. That’s not helping the customer, and I appreciate the problem. Maybe making sure you CAN judge a book by its cover is a good idea. Also, you know this cultural appropriation thing there’s all this PC fuss about? Well, um, if it was a male culture (which it was) do you think they might have slightly more right to decide what they think it is than newcomers? Or is that ol’ patriarchy again? Busy chap, ol’ Pat.
I’m in the selling books lark, myself. I want my readers to see my name, see the cover, and know what they’re buying. I don’t personally give a toss if they have testicles or not, or what color or orientation they are. I have enough fan contact to know I get a broad spectrum. So long as they’re buying a book they like I am cool with it. I want as big an audience as possible and as under-served an audience as possible. Now who would that be?
And, um, redecorating for the girls is fine… if they come. But if those nasty smelly boys don’t want to come into their redecorated playroom – and they’re not prepared to change the décor to something the boys might like too, well, these women writers may find that actually the boys made up quite a lot of the buyers of that bought 30% of women authors in general public (or 25%, by the general public). Let’s say only 1/3 (2/3 of books bought by women)… Hmm. I hope these redecorators can attract another 10% of women who want their décor to just keep them even.
Dividing the audience doesn’t work. Possibly losing your existent audience in the hope of catching a new one… is a high risk strategy.
*corrected thanks to Stephen Gradijan. My apologies